aa principles

AA Principles: The 12 Principles Of AA Explained & Applied

AA Principles…what does that even mean??

AA Principles

If you’re anything like me you’re a personality type individual. That’s one thing I get. I mean, I understand it immaculately too – we’re talking the good, the bad, and the ugly. 

But just what in the hell are the spiritual principles of recovery that everyone keeps talking about?

As with all things in 12-step recovery programs, simplicity is key.

They always bring you back to the basics.


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The AA principles in a nutshell: the 12 spiritual principles of recovery are guiding principles that correspond to the 12 Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous & ALL other 12 Step programs.

These are the “anonymous” groups that saturate the addiction recovery map. For example Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous, Gamblers Anonymous, Overeaters Anonymous, Al-Anon, etc. 

The 12 spiritual principles are designed to be a stand-in recovery tour guide, to assist in decision making, to expedite spiritual growth, and promote personal wellness.

I’m sure you’ve heard of “HOW” to get sober in 12-Step programs. 

HONESTY

OPEN-MINDEDNESS

WILLINGNESS

AA Principles

Simple, right? Yes! But not at all easy. 

The recovery process as instructed by Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous, is not a set of exercises but rather an ongoing process and a revolutionary lifestyle.

This is the deal they offer: manage the disease of addiction by following the 12 Steps; connect with other alcoholics and addicts who have successfully applied the 12 steps in their lives; follow the instructions laid out in their textbooks; leverage the guidance of old-timers who have achieved what you want; and suit up, show up, and fess up. 

Of course, there are a variety of spiritual principles of recovery, all of which foster higher levels of integrity and concern for others. 

However, the following guiding principles correspond to each step. A principle for each step. The idea? As you practice these principles you’ll naturally stay sober. 


The 12 spiritual principles of recovery are as follows: acceptance, hope, faith, courage, honesty, patience, humility, willingness, brotherly love, integrity, self-discipline, and service.


AA Principles

The 12 Spiritual Principles in Daily Practice 

1. Acceptance

There is a reason Alcoholics Anonymous adopted the Serenity Prayer. It captures this principle perfectly. 

AA Principles

Some things can be changed – go change them. 

Others, however, cannot be changed – accept them. 

For example, if in early recovery my family still doesn’t trust me (it shouldn’t be surprising if they do not), I can change my behavior to be more honest and trustworthy. 

However, I cannot change their feelings of distrust. I have to accept they feel this way and throw my efforts into my behavior, which will likely, but not always, produce the desired result (them trusting me). 

AA Principles

2. Hope

I always think of hope as having vision of the big picture.

During times of anxiety and/or depression, we tend to think in a very narrow sense. We think the show is over; let the credits roll. 

It’s obvious this mental state is anything but resourceful. 

A mentor of mine once commented, “where there is vision, there is provision.” I can either find a problem in every solution or I can start stacking solutions. 

I know if I go to the gym and work out my muscles they will increase. The vision of the end product motivates me and seeing the strength of others who have been actively exercising gives me hope. 

Is recovery any different?

Those who have been practicing these principles are radically changed. What will you look like radically changed? 

There is your motivation.

There is your hope.

AA Principles

3. Faith

Practicing faith in the 12-Step approach usually refers to pray, meditation, and charity (being of service to others).

It’s trusting that this process can produce a contented sober result.

Joe and Charlie of the Big Book Study Groups, stated that:

  • Belief is the cause.
  • Faith is the result.

Usually the belief is of stirred by necessity.

Imagine I travel 7 hours away from my home to visit my brother. During this time my car breaks down. 

What do I do? My mechanic is hours away!

Well, I trust my brother. He directs me to his mechanic. I don’t have faith in his mechanic, but I do believe in him. I don’t have much choice, do I? It’s of necessity.

After his mechanic does an amazing job, I now have faith in his mechanic. 

Belief brought my car to the shop; I had a problem that needed a solution. Faith was the final result.

The same principle applies.

Early in our recovery our belief may be less in God and more in others, their sobriety, and the solution they propose. If our problem is great enough, we will begin to put the solution to practice, faith will be the invariably result.

AA Principles

4. Courage

Courage is about authenticity.

Letting other people into your life requires jettisoning security, perhaps the last security you have left. 

AA Principles

It’s about letting go of all those things you’ve held to be true for so long. 

Perhaps we’ve been operating under the cultural assumption that men don’t ask for help – courage is challenging that by not only asking for help but being completely open about the problem. 

Courage is letting your guard down. This principle is piecemeal, but the most rewarding.

5. Honesty

AA Principles

The first paragraph of “How It Works” in Alcoholics Anonymous three times affirms the importance of “honesty.”

“Rarely have we seen a person fail who has thoroughly followed our path. Those who do not recover are people who cannot or will not completely give themselves to this simple program, usually men and women who are constitutionally incapable of being honest with themselves. There are such unfortunates. They are not at fault; they seem to have been born that way. They are naturally incapable of grasping and developing a manner of living which demands rigorous honesty. Their chances are less than average. There are those, too, who suffer from grave emotional and mental disorders, but many of them do recover if they have the capacity to be honest.”

If you can practice stringent honesty and courageously develop a lifestyle of transparency not only will you remain sober, you’ll be utterly and totally emotionally free.

AA Principles

6. Patience

I tell my kids that patience is “waiting without complaining.”

I call one time after a long day’s work I pulled up to the car wash to give the Pontiac a shine. 

Unfortunately, the line was long. We’re talking at the airport during the holidays. 

Immediately, I was enraged. 

I was furious that others wanted to clean their cars too (I know, it’s embarrassing). I judged how people looked, how they cleaned, and just had an overall feeling of frustration and hatred. 

I immediately realized how unresourceful my mental state was. I took a deep breath and decided to listen to a podcast about mindfulness. 

In a short time, I was laughing at my ridiculousness! I washed my car, learned from my impatience, and left with a clean car and mind.

AA Principles

7. Humility

I define humility as the mental assent to the necessity of having healthy relationships in our lives. 

We need relationships because by ourselves we cannot adequately survive, particularly in terms of emotional health. 

In order to make these relationships thrive, humility provides us with an understanding of imperfection. If we were perfect we wouldn’t need each other, so it’s irrational and prideful to expect perfection from ourselves or others. 

Humility recognizes wrongs and promptly admits them. It doesn’t strive to be right via argumentation, but to be connected. It doesn’t seek competition but co-operation. It’s doesn’t seek vengeance but love and forgiveness. 

The Prayer of Saint Francis grasps a lifestyle of humility better than anything else I’ve ever read, reflect on its message.

AA Principles

8. Willingness

Willingness is so powerful that once you’ve become willing you have, in effect, changed.

Bill Wilson, co-founder of AA, early in his recovery was under a great deal of stress and wanted to drink. 

He realized that the only way to survive this craving was to help someone else. He knew he needed to get out of his own head by being of service to another alcoholic. 

So, he took action! (Willingness always takes action).

He started calling random pastors and doctors looking for someone to help. Fortunately, after an hour or so he found someone. Unfortunately, that someone (Dr. Bob) was already unconscious and would be unable to speak until the following day. 

Nonetheless, the willingness did it’s magic. Bill no longer wanted the drink.

This is what willingness is. 

As stated early, it’s “suiting up, showing up, and fessing up.” 

The magic word is action. 

The two most important things you can do on a daily basis are to start and continue.

9. Brotherly-love

There isn’t a great deal to comment on this principle. It’s best understood as doing the next right thing. 

Helping a neighbor with carrying their grocery bags. Pick up trash on the ground. Volunteer at a clothing closet or soup kitchen. Hold the door for another. As Jesus said, “don’t let your left hand know what your right hand is doing.”

AA Principles

10. Integrity

Integrity is the practice of all the above principles. It’s allowing your values to permeate and inform all of your decisions. 

  • If the cashier gives you extra money, you give it back. 
  • If a friend is doing the wrong thing, you hold them accountable.
  • If you’re at work you give your employer your all and don’t cut corners. 
  • It’s about communicating honestly and transparently with your spouse.

The list goes on and on.

Values should inform your desires; desires shouldn’t inform your values.

11. Self-discipline

Think of discipline in terms of training for soundness of mind, for efficiency, and effectiveness. 

To illustrate… If I desire to be a baseball player my discipline would first appear very basic: acquiring a mitt, a bat and ball, and some basic drills to practice. 

Over time, as I excel and progress, I would most likely join a team under the direction of various coaches to perfect my talents in the game.

Additionally, I would play against other teams. As specific disciplines perfect the athlete, in a like manner specific disciplines perfect the spiritual and emotional life. 

Bill Wilson rightly commented on the necessity of these disciplines when we wrote, “for if the alcoholic failed to perfect and enlarge his spiritual life through work and self-sacrifice for others he could not survive the certain trails and low points ahead.”

These disciplines aren’t just spiritual disciplines such as practicing silence, mindfulness, prayer, contemplation, visualization, and service. 

It’s also emphasizing self-control; prioritizing your schedule rather than scheduling your priorities. 

If you said you were going to be somewhere – be there. 

If you eat too much – eat less. 

If you’re lazy – go exercise. 

Practice self-discipline by doing the work despite who is there to oversee you.

12. Service

AA Principles

“Like a gaunt prospector, belt drawn in over the last ounce of food, our pick struck gold. Joy at our release from a lifetime of frustration knew no bounds. Father feels he has struck something better than gold. For a time he may try to hug the new treasure to himself. He may not see at once that he has barely scratched a limitless lode which will pay dividends only if he mines it for the rest of his life and insists on giving away the entire product.”
-Alcoholics Anonymous

Service is the lynchpin that holds all of one’s recovery together. 

It’s not just a position on a committee, as some wrongly believe, but a posture of the heart. 

In short, service is a lifestyle and it’s one that’s incompatible with drinking and drugging. In other words, it makes alcohol and drugs increasingly unnecessary. 

So what is it? 

I call it “operating with the other in mind.”

  • It’s talking to the individual who is hurt and needs someone to talk to. 
  • It’s volunteering to help someone with a task.
  • It’s donating money to a greater cause.

Service is usually inconvenient; that’s an indicator you’re moving in the right direction. 

When the newcomer or struggling peer calls for help and everything in you wants to ignore that call but you overcome the urge and pick it up anyway – that’s service!

Some common service practices in AA or NA are setting up chairs for a meeting; making coffee; cleaning up; chairing a meeting; reading one of readings, etc. 

Want to really get the momentum building? Google “my town volunteer work” and go offer support. 

That’s service!

In Sum

The 12 Spiritual Principles of 12-Step recovery are guiding principles that enable us to heal in all areas of our life. 

They primarily teach us that our purpose as addicts and alcoholics aren’t merely abstinence, but bettering ourselves as human beings.

And how do we do that?

It’s easy…through acceptance, hope, faith, courage, honesty, patience, humility, willingness, brotherly love, integrity, self-discipline, and service.


Check out the book Practice These Principles by Bill P. It’s a modern rendition of What Is The Oxford Group and brilliantly captures the basic principles the society that influenced AA sought to live by.


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